Pep talk at the Bayern table
Guardiola will have to guard against entropy in a team that has little to prove after tasting every successsports Updated: Jun 02, 2013 01:44 IST
This has been arguably the greatest season in the history of Bayern Munich. They have won Bundesliga by 25 points with a goal difference of plus 80, crushing the Borussia Dortmund insurgency. They have ended a 12-year wait for the Champions League. They have produced football of tremendous quality, combining the technical mastery with pace and directness. And yet they have pensioned off their coach, replacing Jupp Heynckes with Pep Guardiola.Heynckes is only the fourth man to win the Champions League with two different clubs — and the only one promptly to be jettisoned by both. The first time, when in 1998, he ended Real Madrid’s 32-year wait for a seventh European title, he lasted four more days before being removed because of poor domestic results. That seemed a preposterously harsh decision but at least there was a rationale. This time, it’s hard to imagine what he could possibly have done better — and for all that he insisted he had been considering retiring, it’s clear retirement was forced upon him. His greatest fault, it seems, is to have been 67 in an era in which Guardiola was without a club.
That perhaps is not entirely fair on Bayern, who acted swiftly and decisively when it became apparent that Guardiola was available and interested. What Guardiola achieved at Barcelona was remarkable, lifting 14 titles in four years and playing a style of football that even former Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi was forced to acknowledge was so tactically innovative as to mark the first new phase in the game’s development since his AC Milan won a second straight European Cup in 1990. Heynckes’s contract was due to run out in summer and last season was marked by narrow failures: runners-up in league, runners-up in cup and runners-up in Champions League. Any club would have wondered if their manager was lacking the steel to drive his side over the line.
In a sense, Guardiola has the easiest job in world football: a great, young team just coming into maturity, bolstered by two of his main domestic rival’s best players. And yet the very ease of the job makes it difficult. There are no new pinnacles to climb; almost inevitably he must preside over decline.
And yet, it may be that the change of coach will help. Three sides in history have won the European Cup three or more times in a row: Real Madrid between 1956 and 1960, Ajax between 1971 and 1973 and Bayern between 1974 and 1976. All of them changed coach before winning the second title. Admittedly in the case of Real Madrid the switch from Jose Villalonga to Luis Carniglia happened only a month before the 1957 final but the general point holds, which is that all teams have an in-built entropy and a change of leadership can serve to delay that.
It was the great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann who formulated the “three-year rule”: no team, he said, could ever endure more than three years without changing either the coach or a number of key players.
By the third season, players have settled into a complacent pattern, opponents know how they will play and appetite is waning. One of the fascinating aspects of Guardiola’s final season at Barca was his – vain – attempt to stave off decay; here he takes over a side at a later stage of development but one that is effectively starting the three-year cycle again by virtue of his arrival.
The objection, of course, is that it is a huge risk to change a winning formula – but Bayern are not sitting still. Rather, they are appointing a coach who, so far, has proved himself the greatest exponent of the philosophy they embody. It will be the second time Guardiola has replaced somebody who replaced a Dutch manager. Louis van Gaal, a manager who he says did more to influence his approach than anybody else he played for.
(Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, World Soccer and Sports Illustrated. He was named Football Writer of the Year by the Football Supporters Federation in 2012)